Moana (2016)

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In recent years, I’ve found that the best way to approach a Disney or Pixar animated film is to keep expectations low – these are more events than they are films, and they are absolutely huge – and sometimes, they can be somewhat overrated. Honestly, in my lifetime, I don’t think I’ve found either a Disney or Pixar film to ever be that bad, or even not good. But sometimes, the hype overshadows the film itself, and it can be quite disappointing. I didn’t have high expectations for Moana – it just didn’t strike me as being particularly interesting. I was so happy to be proven wrong, because Moana is one of Disney’s absolute high-points, and rather that trying to hearken back to the good old days, it shows a more progressive and interesting Disney, and it could be one of their very best.

Moving the action away from Europe, Moana takes place in Polynesia, a region hardly ever explored in cinema, let alone by such a huge studio. In retrospect, this should have been the ultimate indicator of Moana‘s incredible quality – Disney, to its credit, always explores the folklore and legends and histories of their films pretty thoroughly, and having a look at Polynesian culture was an extraordinary audacious decision, and being someone who loves learning about new cultures, Moana was right up my alley. I adored the fact that a lot of this film’s music was sung in the languages of Polynesia, which was such a beautiful decision to make, because it allows the culture to be represented through its extraordinary languages. Moana is culturally rich and diverse in how it handles its location and the traditions of its characters, and it is just another of Disney’s culturally intense films.

Moana has some incredibly strong vocal performances. Auli’i Cravalho plays the titular heroine, and to cast an unknown was a wonderful choice – and her authenticity and passion shine through, both in her spunky dialogue and her incredible singing voice. I hope Cravalho does more film work, hopefully live-action, because even through just a vocal performance, I could tell she is wonderfully talented. Dwayne Johnson has had an amazing ascension from wrestler to high-earning actor. I consider this to the fact that Johnson has the rare charisma that makes him impossible to dislike – and I think he is one of the truly genuine, bona fide Hollywood stars, and there is no one more deserving of this adoration than Johnson, who is just so wonderfully talented, and with each passing film he makes, I become more and more of a fan, and I am really starting to think that I’ll follow Johnson’s career, wherever it goes.

Smaller performances are also incredibly valuable to the film. New Zealand character actress Rachel House (who stole the show earlier this year in Hunt for the Wilderpeople) was wonderful as Moana’s grandmother, and Jemaine Clement has a wonderful moment as a giant crab, proving that he himself is a performer we should definitely be keeping our eye on, if you haven’t already. I love the fact that New Zealand cinema is starting to have real breakout stars, and hopefully, soon New Zealand can be seen as a cinematic nation that isn’t defined by the Lord of the Rings films.

The music in Moana is some of Disney’s best – simple, subtle and emotionally resonant. Part of this can be attributed to the involvement of Lin-Manuel Miranda – a man who I believe everyone who does not recognize that name certainly will very soon. Moana‘s music is so uncharacteristically Disney, it borders on being foreign. There is the big ballad that will empower people for years (“How Far I’ll Go”), but then there is also the David Bowie-inspired cabaret number (“Shiny”) and then the hilarious and bouncy anthem (“You’re Welcome”), and the sweeping and beautifully composed ballad (“We Know the Way”), amongst others. The music isn’t overpowering, but undeniably brilliant, and it is just so well-composed, it proves that Disney can be capable of doing something both familiar and new. The music is some of the best Disney has ever produced, and will approach the pantheon of great Disney films with amazing soundtracks, mostly composed of those iconic films from the 1990s.

Moana is also so unpredictable – it does sometimes veer very close to using tropes and cliches, and while it is far from being utterly original, it does have some great twists and turns, and differences from other Disney films that make it original enough to be great and stand on its own as an original film. My biggest fear was that Moana would be too derivative – and while there are some aspects that have been done before in other films, in Moana, they are fresh and new, and stand out as great moments in a wonderful film.

Moana also proves that animation is just constantly being pushed beyond its limits. Utterly gorgeous and beautifully crafted, the animation is breathtaking. Supreme effort was placed into making this film, and throughout it, I sat in awe. Disney continues to find new and innovative ways to create something special and beautiful, and if there is one thing universally acknowledged about Moana, it is that it is just so damn beautiful.

I have to say, Moana impressed me, on nearly every front. It was a delightful film, and going in with relatively low expectations did help – I didn’t expect to hate the film at all, but I wasn’t expecting to enjoy it as much as I did. I found Moana to be one of the better animated films of the year, and along with Zootopia, Disney is really doing well this year. Moana is just incredible, from beginning to end. I highly suggest it to any fan of Disney, or even to those who are reluctant to enjoy a Disney film – it may just be the film to convert you.

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